The most important part in “Am I Still…”

Yesterday, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer Kate Braestrup wrote an article called “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” Comments pro and con (so far as I’m algorithmically allowed to see on Facebook) seem to be splitting on the same terms and among the same people as Todd Eklof/The Gadfly Papers controversy. I won’t be rehashing that.

What’s new is the response, sometimes thinly coded, to Braestrup’s prior claim to be Unitarian Universalist minister at all. She is plainly states that she is neither a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and has not fellowship of the Unitarian Universalist Association through the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but was ordained “by my beloved UU congregation in Rockland, Maine!” That’s allowed in our tradition, and since I have long regarded other locally ordained ministers as colleagues, I’m satisfied to count her as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Had all this been a century ago, and Universalist, my answer would be different. But the polity first merged, then changed and now is burning to the ground. I’d rather have what we had then, but we don’t and so I’ll say yes to her based on (what’s left of) what we do have.

Braestrup recounts her bonafides at length, and an ungenerous person might think she was simply bragging. I think it’s a sign of her being a decent writer. What I hear without her being explicit is “I can have this ministry, it can succeed reaching many people and it’s without the blessing or strictures of the UUA.” An equally ungenerous person might think her detractors have the taste of sour grapes in their mouths.

I think DIY ministries are going to have to become the norm; again recalling a secularizing culture, the cost of formal preparation and the thinning out of paying pastorates. We should be able to rely on the UUA and UUMA to help overcome these limitations, and in those terms Braestrup could not and should not rely on that help. Local ordination cuts both ways. (Local ordinands also the subject of whisper campaigns; I’ve heard those for decades, and don’t take them seriously.)

But neither the UUMA or UUA shows firm or sustained interest in functioning religiously to meet these challenges, and hasn’t for years. Where are the services? Where are the leaders? Not to mention that it’s clear that fellowship is no guarantee of ethics or capability. The UUA in particular seems to exist to fix its own problems. Who needs that? Add this fixation on white supremacy within the gates, and you get a system that’s completely unworkable and frantic. (It’ll be interesting if there’s another cultural shift if President Trump loses the 2020 election. If there’s anything left.)

The most important part in “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” is the underlying theme that you can make a ministry without the legacy systems, and that doesn’t make it illegitimate. And further I’ll add: a guild without benefits isn’t worth the time or loyalty.

“Gadfly Papers” discussion continues

I suppose it’s a bit obvious to say that “Gadfly Papers” discussion continues because it never ended. But I intend to write here about commentary that is both constructive and public. I have a particular point of view, but I don’t think that keeps me from giving opponents a fair hearing; neither does it oblige me to dignify manipulative rhetoric. Facebook is such shifting sand that there’s little point linking to something. When I find something that passes muster, I may link to it.

I put Dan Harper, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer, into that category. He wrote about The Gadfly Papers, and in reference to my analysis recently. (I’m just now seeing it.) I think he confuses my analysis of Todd Eklof’s work with disapproval, but the distinction isn’t fatal. Yes, I wish the book were better written, but Eklof wrote when others wouldn’t, and that makes it the best of its kind to date.

But we’re past the book itself. Institutionally, the issues have exposed deep fault lines, and whether Eklof’s intent or an incidental development, that’s the real story.

Sharing my articles

I’ve gotten a lot of interesting messages lately and some requests to share the articles that I’ve written. I wish I could say it’s about my reviews of prayer resources or research into Universalist polity. No, it’s almost always about the UUA, the UUMA or their action against Todd Eklof. There’s a lot of anger towards the signers of that letter out there.

Sure, share my articles. I post them in public to be read. (And if I said no, how would I stop you?)

But if the point of sharing the article is to stir up trouble in your church, please consider speaking directly and clearly to whom you have the conflict instead. Use the systems of accountability you have at hand, rather than relying on gossip and back-channel. While sometimes effective in the short run, gossip and back-channel are intensely corrosive to a church and that way nobody wins anything.

About the Bisbee trial

Because of the controversy around the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s public censure of Todd Eklof, there’s been talk of heresy trials. Of course, there’s no trial yet, just the censure and waves of accusation, though some formal action could happen. (I wonder what the euphemism will be?)

There was a trial of a Universalist minister, Herman Bisbee, that’s widely regarded as a heresy trial — and a mistake. Naturally, it’s come up in the Facebook conversations (with Michael Servetus, whom I’ll leave for someone else to write about) so good to give some context to those unfamiliar with the situation. I’m going to pull together what I’ve written about it plus any original documents I can scare up.

But Charles Howe’s article at the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography is detailed, and rather than re-write one, I’ll point to his.

Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 2

I don’t want to make this controversy my full-time job, so this post and done (if I can help it.) Here are my earlier articles the subject: introduction and part one.

My first instinct was correct; this is a work of controversy and while there are parts I do agree with, its style and form wouldn’t have convinced me.  That and it’s so blisteringly Unitarian, which is a pet complaint. The biggest plus is directing me to the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, whom I’ll add to my reading list.

I’m imagining where the harm claims are coming from. I see forms of argument that could remind people of other arguments that were abusive. Some terms Eklof uses, such as political correctness  and safetyism, are used by other authors to dismiss or belittle critics, and the fact they show up in the title of the first essay (“The Coddling of the Unitarian Universalist Mind: How the Emerging Culture of Safetyism, Identitarianism, and Political Correctness is Reshaping America’s Most Liberal Religion”) surely put examiners into high alert. I also see discussions of controversy — in particular, the district executive hiring crisis of 2017 ― that could be embarrassing to those who had thought the narrative was conclusively set. The tension around the publication itself (General Assembly is a strange time) could inflame old trauma. I still don’t see the viciousness (“vitriolic rhetoric” introduction to reposted white ministers letter;”aligned with alt-right ideology” Allies for Racial Equity letter; “dissemination of racism, ableism, and the affirmation of other forms of oppression, including classism and homo- and transphobia” UUMA POCI chapter letter; “toxic history and theologies” DRUUMM letter) its denouncers claim.  And fiat isn’t good enough; you have to show your work, if not to me, then to the laity commenting online, who seem to be at a different place.

Some writers, mainly on Facebook, speak of portions floating around, or selections that confirm their decision to condemn. I think this is a mistake, not only because that’s the oldest rhetorical trick in the book, but because Eklof has a theme that’s woven through his book that gets lost with excerpting: an ecclesiology of the free church based on universal human experience. That’s important because he doesn’t condemn those who would condemn him, but tries to re-direct the discussion to what we might have together.  It’s a basis for unity because we need one, and this necessity is what the rest of the book relies on. (His ecclesiology leave me cold, but that’s besides the point.)

The less said about the second essay the better. The “divorce” in the title is a call to redivide the Unitarians and Universalists so they could be their true selves. I’m not sure if that’s Swiftian fancy, or simply romantic misreading. But his examples ignored the economic reasons, not to mention the social realities, that lead to consolidation.  I think you can make a good case for breaking up or restructuring the UUA. For one, it’s too small to be efficient but too big to be nimble. Also, without another similar peer organization, when people leave, they’re gone. UUA1 and UUA2 could specialize, develop their own styles and volley ministers and churches back and forth, and I bet it would be bigger in aggregate than the UUA today. A little competition is good, too. But that’s not what Eklof suggests.

Yet I think both Eklof and his accusers suffer that common affliction of wanting to be right more than being successful. It might surprise non-readers that he has ideas for dismantling racism, and to continue to work on not being racist, and talks about his bona-fides at in the epilogue.  You might think them hogwash (or wonderful) but they’re there. That is, if you can make it through his argumentation, especially the extended section on logic. God help me, but he might have been a graduate of the Vulcan School for Exquisite Logic and that still would have been the wrong approach. An appeal to rhetoric (a personal favorite) wouldn’t have been any better. Where he’s sermonic, he’s stronger. So third and largest essay was a convoluted slog, and if I had been anxious or angry or good ol’ loaded-for-bear going into the book, it would have amplified my feelings greatly.

I finally finished the book, but half-way through started taking notes in earnest, and so details from the front third aren’t as fresh in mind. Plus my blasted Kindle copy resists cutting-and-pasting. But I have to put this down. I’ll keep the comments open for a while; so far everyone has been civil, which makes me happy.

If you are interested in reading the book to understand Eklof’s points, read the epilogue first, the beginning and end of the third essay and then the first. You can skim the second essay for the ecclesiological themes.

Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 1

I am a slow reader with a day job. So I am less than a third of the way done reading The Gadfly Papers, but do have some general observations both of the book and the three letters denouncing it.

First, I never intended to read it. My very first instinct was “not again.” Itchy political analysis of the UUA was common fifteen to twenty years ago, created “more heat than light” and inspired me to be more strategic and analytic whenever I met something in the UUA that seemed like a bad idea. I spiked a lot of my own stories. The table of contents reminded me of the old days. It was the denouncing letters that prompted me to buy and read the book.

Why? The letters were sure of their reasons, were very confident but gave no examples. (The UUMA POCI letter cited an Christina Rivera as an injured party, but not what in the book caused the injury.)  And the lists grew so fast, that I thought “surely they didn’t read it yet,” which raised a red flag. So whatever the motives of the signatories — which I trust as a matter of principle was based on conscience, duty or both — the letters read to me as a pile-on. For example, does being “intentionally provocative” (white ministers letter) merit hundreds of signatures against a single colleague?

I took it both as a matter of conscience and duty to not be swayed by numbers and see for myself. And for this I was criticized and chided for buying the book. By ministers. It is currently the #1 and #2 books (Kindle and paperback respectively) about Unitarian Universalism on Amazon, despite an attempt to displace it by strategic purchasing of another book. Clearly, others want to read it, too.

You can quietly ask someone to stop writing. You can make a reasoned, convincing argument why someone is wrong. You cannot make forceful, public demands, and then expect people to not start Google-ing.

As for the book, so far it’s not great literature. It could use a copy editor and is a bit self-conscious of its place in history and the weight of criticism that did, in fact, come. Even the “white ministers letter” calls it a treatise, and I think that’s the right genre. The interpretation of Unitarian history, in my opinion, is not good. But it is exactly the kind of folk-history, transmitted through sermons and pamphlets, that built the long dominant idea that Unitarianism is the “faith of the free.”

I will provide examples of some recent embarrassing Unitarian Universalist episodes  later, but again I’m a slow reader trying to read for comprehension and the meaning of the controversy. So far, I do not see in Eklof’s book a narrative equal to the outrage.

“The Gadfly Papers”

The controversy around the Rev. Todd Eklof, the minister of the host church for the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUA GA; #uuaga), is one I never thought I would see.

It hinges on his book The Gadfly Papers, which he was distributing for free at the GA. He and his books were removed following a Right Relations process. I’m still waiting for a formal report-out from the General Assembly.

Generally, the claims (I’ve seen no specific examples) are that his ideas and even the titles of his essays are so hurtful as to be intolerable. That’s something I never expected to see among Unitarian Universalists, but here we are. One such denunciation is from DRUUMM (Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries) and another is from an ad-hoc group of white ministers, which I have seen but do not have a public link. (I’ll add it if and when it becomes available.) I have also seen individual statements from ministers on Facebook.

These claims map to the claims of harm attributed to the UUMA proposal response I co-wrote and signed. I am, so I hear, “being watched.” Again, is this Unitarian Universalism?

So I’m doing the most UU thing — or at least the most sensible — I can think of: read the book. You can order a copy here. I don’t promise to like it and will give my unvarnished review when I’m done, or perhaps after finishing each of the three essays depending on how it reads. I will look for what might be causing grief among its denouncers.

Update: I have found another denunciation, from the People of Color and Indigenous UUMA Chapter. It cites references to Christina Rivera in particular, and calls on the UUMA to enforce its guidelines, presumably disciplinary action against Todd Eklof.

Update: Some links to the third letter and outside commentary, plus two versions of the Right Relations interchange (one by Todd Eklof) in the comments.